This writer shuffled through the report titled "Study on Civil Society in Changing India: Emerging Roles, Relationships and Strategies" the other day which was initiated, led and later completed, among others, by a consortium of which Delhi based Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA). It is to be noted that PRIA is a globally adulated civil society organisation (CSO) established more than four decades ago which has made a distinct, defining and impactful contributions in the areas of governance, civil society innovation and participatory citizenship.
Conceptualised and authored by the leading CSO thought leaders and widely acclaimed research scholars in India and the beyond, Dr. Rajesh Tandon and Dr. Kaustuv Bandopadhyaya, among others, the study provides a coherent and focused tour d’horizon of the political economy of civil society organisations in the contemporary India which are said to be stuck at the crossroad. India's case in this regard is more or less analogous to the social, political and state governance dynamics impinging upon the multiple facets of the civil society discourse in some of South Asian countries, including Nepal. The study did evince my interest and sustained my curiosity especially when I found some of its observations and conclusions did reflect and reiterate the civil society dynamics and dilemma obtaining in Nepal as well.
Perplexing situation The study categorically takes stock of the changing civil society landscape, composition, roles and relationships in response to the socio-political and economic scenario in India. As the civil societies have been at the crossroads, this perplexing situation calls for fresh direction, future- ready reorientation and innovative approaches to survive the challenging test of the new situation and context. The study does undertake critical reflections on the current state of civil society in an inclusive and bottom-up manner. It harvests a discursive and robust knowledge on the evolving dynamics of civil society with special reference to India bearing relevance to other countries in the South Asia and beyond.
India has undoubtedly a long and an enduring history of the active and diverse civic sphere organisations playing a seminal role in her freedom struggle, social reform and democratic transformation during the post-Independence decades. India's rich and robust civic legacy and democratic traditions are definitely much more mature, lasting and resilient than that of many nations in South Asia. However, this writer holds the view that the civil society discourse in the liberal democratic sense of the term expanded both in India and Nepal more or less at the same time during the beginning of the1990s coincidental to the much touted third wave of democracy. As the political parties had been banned and operated underground in Nepal from 1960 to 1990, the political groups executed their anti-establishment actions under the cover of the civic groups and professional organisations. The role of the CSOs towards the restoration of pluralist democracy and keeping its banner alive in Nepal is equally significant.
In fact, as mentioned above, the restoration of multiparty democracy in Nepal and her joining in the league of the pluralistic democratic nation in 1990 was engendered due to the contributions, among others, of civil society. Civil society organisations had played an important role in the making of the democratic federal constitution in 2015 and earning constitutional space to the local government as an important sphere of the state structure.
Similar to India, civic groups in Nepal have worked in deepening the democratic process and expanding the spaces where the poor and excluded people can participate, contribute as well as challenge the malaises of the governing process and systems. CSOs are thus engaged in a wide spectrum of activities which encompass issues of governance, advocacy, policy making and facilitating people’s participation through awareness generation.
In post-liberalisation times since the beginning of the 1990s, as argued in the study, when the state started withdrawing from many of its responsibilities, addressing the concerns of society could not be left at the mercy of the political system. Civil society and social actors are encouraged to take up responsibility for the development and welfare functions which the State wants to divest. It is argued in the study that the compulsions of survival in globalised financial and capital markets necessitate such a division and allocation of responsibilities.
A significant trend noticed since the decade of 1990s has been the mushrooming growth of civil society organisations in India and also in Nepal. However, a simple perusal of their institutional sustainability and organisational capacity indicates that whole lot of the organisations did emerge abruptly without being necessarily aware of the local context and the specific needs of that society. This CSO proliferation and expansion was, in fact, buttressed and stimulated to respond to the increased targeting of the CSOs by the donors as the effective agencies to route aid for developmental activities in the poor countries especially in the event of the rolling back of the State. CSOs were also preferred as recipients of aid as they had been expected to provide safeguards to people adversely affected by the onslaught of the market. The civil society organisations have also been viewed as an effective watchdog that can curb any authoritarian malfeasance and tendencies of State.
Existential fight However, the civil society seems to be going on the retreat. Particularly, civil society organisations in Nepal have faced with resource crunch and crisis of functionality especially after 2015 when the new federal democratic constitution authored by the constituent assembly was introduced. The political society which once received much needed support of the civil society in its existential fight against the authoritarian polity appears to be more intolerant and less accommodative to civic concerns and interests.
Civic space is being increasingly restricted while donor support to CSOs has been further squeezed due to one or the other reasons. The state bureaucracy in Nepal is completely averse to engage and collaborate with civil society and rather chooses to channel the earmarked state resources through its own preferred informal networks to the detriment of civil society. As discussed in the study, similar to India, civil society in Nepal is at the crossroads battling for its meaning and relevance which calls for a critical reflection in staying relevant and functional in the evolving context.
(The author is presently associated with Policy Research Institute (PRI) as a senior research fellow. email@example.com)